Theatre of war: The backlash begins against Broadway Brits

With 'Billy Elliot' up for 15 awards tonight, all-American shows have resorted to an appeal to judges' patriotism to try to see off those pesky Limeys. David Usborne reports
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The Independent Culture

They will try to impart tonight's Tony Awards in Manhattan with all possible razzmatazz to revive flagging TV ratings, assisted – perhaps – by wins for celebrities including Sir Elton John and the Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury. But rumbling in the background will be a sour little side drama that might go by the title "Too Many Damn Brits".

Broadway veterans were this weekend predicting that when the final gong is given on the stage of the Radio City Music Hall late tonight, and the television audience is finally released to go to bed, more than half of the prizes will be taken home by veterans of British theatre rather than by home-grown American talent. Much of the reason can be summed up in two words, Billy Elliot, which could break the record set by The Producers for the most number of Tony awards given to a single show.

That British actors, dancers, singers and directors, not to mention all those involved in design, are used to taking home a hefty trove of Tonys each year is hardly news. But not since the days when Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera first landed on the Great White Way has a Broadway season been so dominated by British imports.

It is a state of affairs that some deplore. In the first sign of a backlash, the producers of Reasons to Be Pretty by the American playwright Neil LaBute have sent an email to the Tony judges asking them to look kindly on the play, which is nominated in the Best Play category.

The pleading missive – seats have not been filling at Reasons – is fair enough until it errs into distinctly tricky territory by insinuating that it is time for the judges to show their patriotism. "We believe passionately in this distinctly American work," it declared bluntly. "Many of you have told us that you share that belief. Many of you are telling everyone you know that you believe this play must be seen."

A similar appeal was contained in another email circulated by the Lincoln Center Theater, which has two productions in contention, Dividing the Estate and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The two plays – the latter was seen by Barack and Michelle Obama a week ago – are "deeply rooted American plays", they wanted to the judges to know.

Joe Turner faces tough competition from West End transfers in its category, Best Revival of a Play. They are The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn, which is the favourite, and Mary Stuart, which stars two prodigious British talents, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, both also nominated as Best Featured Actress.

For Best Play, a category that promises the winner a big box office boost, Dividing the Estate is thought to have only the slimmest chance of winning because it us up against God of Carnage, another import from London, though its writer, Yasmina Reza, is French. Matthew Warchus – British – is nominated for best director twice here this year, for Conquests and for Carnage. (While Conquests is struggling to fill its in-the-round auditorium, Carnage is a bona fide hit and has just announced a second run of performances in the autumn.)

Not all Broadway-watchers welcome the call to patriotic arms. "This crude xenophobia is outrageous," declared Michael Riedel, the often acerbic and witty critic of the New York Post. "Theatre people pride themselves on being 'progressive' and I'm sure most would be against rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants."

No one will suggest dispatching Sir Elton anywhere, of course, even if he wins for the score for Billy Elliot. Nor indeed will anyone really pack Geoffrey Rush – he being Australian, but still foreign nonetheless – into a cab for JFK Airport if he wins Best Actor for his performance in Exit the King, as many on the Way are predicting.

Billy Elliot, the tale of the young son of a coalminer with unlikely Swan Lake aspirations, equalled The Producers in earning 15 nominations. The Producers ending up pocketing 12 awards in 2001, and it will hard for Billy to do better. Many of its nods were in the design field. Sir Elton has tough competition also from the music written for the critically lauded Next to Normal.

Tonight's event has been preceded by a squall of sniping against CBS, the network that will broadcast the show live amid signs that audiences are less than enthralled. For that reason, it announced that this year's awards, to be hosted by the actor Neil Patrick Harris, will feature more musical interludes from shows such as Mamma Mia! and will dispense with some of the design and straight drama awards – including that for Best Revival – outside actual broadcast time. Particularly aggrieved is Kevin Spacey, the London-based actor/director, who was a producer of The Norman Conquests. "This is bonehead, outrageous, infuriating and insulting not just to everyone who has worked so hard on these productions, but to the entire theatre community," he said. "It is another example of the systematic chipping away, for financial gain, of what the Tonys are supposed to be about."

Meanwhile, other British nominees who seem set for glory this evening include Stephen Daldry for directing Billy Elliot and Peter Darling for choreography on the same show. Most betting people on Broadway also have money on Ms Lansbury winning Best Featured Actress in Blithe Spirit. Well, all right, so Ms Lansbury is officially British, but let's not get all technical about this. Hardly a single American would know that.

Britain's nominations

The Norman Conquests 7 award nominations

Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy follows the misadventures of six characters during a weekend of hilarious meetings and misunderstandings.

This production, directed by Matthew Warchus, opened at the Old Vic in London in October 2008. Paul Taylor wrote in The Independent: "It's heaven in triplicate."

London tickets sold out and the cast, including Stephen Mangan and Jessica Hynes, transferred to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre in April.

Theatremania said the plays would make audiences "laugh to the point of aisle-rolling".

God of Carnage 6 award nominations

God of Carnage is about two seemingly civilised couples who discuss a playground quarrel between their sons.

Christopher Hampton's translation of Yasmina Reza's play was first performed in the Gielgud Theatre, London, in March 2008. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the production featured Ralph Fiennes and Tamsin Greig and was described by The Daily Telegraph as "a crackling night of electrifying comic acting".

When the play opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that they offered "a marvellously giving, balanced ensemble".

Equus 2 award nominations

Peter Shaffer's drama features a stable boy and a psychiatrist as they explore various sexual and religious mysteries.

This production, directed by Thea Sharrock, sold out in London, where it opened at the Gielgud Theatre in February 2007. The boy was portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, and the psychiatrist by Richard Griffiths. The Sunday Times said: "[as] a work of art, it is magnificent".

After its move to Broadway in September 2008, The Wall Street Journal described it as "a near-ideal revival".

Mary Stuart 7 award nominations

Friedrich Schiller's play explores the rivalry between Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.

This production, adapted by Peter Oswald, had its premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in London in July 2005. It sold out and moved to the Apollo Theatre in October 2005.

The Observer stated that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, "has provided a gleaming, intense Mary Stuart. It's thrillingly staged and acted to the hilt."

The play returned to Broadway in 2009 for a 20-week season at the Broadhurst Theatre.

The New York Times described the production as: "Ripping. A stage burner of a revival."

Billy Elliot – the Musical 15 award nominations

Since its premiere at London's Victoria Palace Theatre in May 2005, Billy Elliot has been an enduring success. It is based on the award-winning film about a boy chasing his dancing dreams against all the odds, and was brought to the stage by the director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall, with a score by Sir Elton John.

Charles Spencer wrote in The Daily Telegraph: " Billy Elliot strikes me as the greatest British musical I have ever seen." It opened in Australia in 2007 and on Broadway in 2008 and has played to more than 3.3 million people around the world.

Guys and Dolls 2 award nominations

Frank Loesser's quintessential Broadway musical tells the tale of two New York couples betting on love despite the odds stacked against them.

This new Guys and Dolls, produced by the London-based Ambassador Theatre Group, made its debut in the West End in June 2005 starring Ewan McGregor. On opening night, Paul Taylor said in The Independent that it looked "a sure-fire winner".

It was welcomed back to Broadway in March 2009.

The New York Times wrote: "This is an enchanting rebirth of the show that defines Broadway dazzle."